Ron Rosenbaum

Truman Capote: Fake Snakes in a Car

Recently I bought a copy of %%AMAZON=0679745661 Music for Chamelons%% for a writer I like. Because I think it contains some of Capote’s best most problematic work. An almost diamond sharp stylishnes punctuated by loosey goosey intervals like his hilarious “A Day’s Work”– his account of going around to Other People’s Apartments with his cleaning woman.

Anyway before I could deliver the book to her I was struck again by the subtitle to the 80 page major work in the book: Handcarved Coffins. The subtitle still reads A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”.

The crime, purportedly one of a series of crimes, was the murder of a husband and wife in the midwest. The murder is carried out by rattlesnakes. And not just ordinary rattlesnakes in ordinary circumstances.

On a hot morning, a “sizzler” of a day, the couple finds their car windows rolled up. “…they each entered the car through separate doors, and as soon as they were inside–wam! A tangle of rattlesnakes hit them like lightning. We found nine big rattlers inside the car. All had been injected with amphetamine;they were crazy, they bit the Robertses everywhere…their heads were huge and swollen like Halloween pumpkins painted green…”

Pretty bad. Surprizing, as Capote slyly notes before introudcing us to this crime and the investigator who is the main character in “Hand Carved Coffins”, that the case had “almost no publicity.”

Not surprizing if you realize that there WAS no such case. That this “non fiction account” was appparently spun out of whole cloth by Capote. It’s something i suspected when I first read it. It’s something I first saw pointed out in print in a piece in the TLS back in 1997 (I think),and affirmed byCapote most authoratative biographer.

And yet there it remains in the subtitle “A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”. I still think it’s an important Capote work. Just mistitled.

Isn’t it time, since everyone seems to be more interested the difference between fiction and non fiction these days, that there be some acknowledment of the fact tht it’s fiction inthe book?

Woudn’t such an acknowledgement give the usnsupecting reader a more complex portrait of the artist, knowing that what he or she was reading was fiction masked as fact? The very fact Capote called it “nonfiction” is an interesting fact especially in the view of the approach of a second Capote film which, along with last year’s Capote explored the whole truth fiction question in a fictionalized way.

And shouldn’t Capote get some kind of credit (or blame) for having inspired or anticipated Snakes on a Plane?